Pupils together again


Nikki Charlebois was back yesterday, her three little girls in tow, finally able to eat breakfast with them in the cafeteria again, as had been their daily ritual for so long.

So was Erin Thomas, a third-grader who had spent the past three months apart from the rest of her classmates -- sent in all the uncertainty to a school 18 miles away, near her mom's waitress job. So, too, was Principal Barbara Clark, with the CD player she uses to usher in each day with a "musical moment." On this morning it belted out "We Are Family" because, she said, they are.

Yesterday, more than three months after asbestos contamination forced the closure of Hawthorne Elementary School, the Middle River campus was finally open for the business of education, much to the relief of nearly everyone who set their damp feet inside. For three months, the 535 pupils -- most of them accustomed to the short walk to their Kingston Road school -- boarded buses for two different schools where they saw the familiar faces of their teachers while sitting in borrowed classrooms and sharing someone else's playing fields.

"We all worried, but our children adapted beautifully," Clark said, while standing in a freshly painted corridor at Hawthorne. "Those neighborhoods really embraced us. But there is something to be said about being back home."

One evening in late September, construction crews were working to renovate a first-floor restroom. A worker cut a pipe covered in a substance that turned out to be asbestos, a hazardous fiber when its particles are airborne. The kids missed two weeks of classes while school officials scrambled to clean up the school, which was undergoing renovation on nights and weekends. Then they decided to close Hawthorne while the remaining work was completed, shipping the children to Middlesex and Battle Grove elementary schools.

The 2002 version of Hawthorne has a new paint job, new ceiling tiles and light fixtures, a sprinkler system and plumbing, electrical and heating upgrades. Air-quality tests have come back clear. "It even smells cleaner," marveled Bonnie Thomas, whose niece Jessica Wickham is a second-grader.

As they bounded down the long halls yesterday morning, pupils raced for their classrooms. "I'm next to two boys," remarked 11-year-old Kira Leonard as she spotted her new desk. "I hope I sit up front," shouted another. "Look, our folders are here," said a third.

Clark had worried about sending her pupils on long bus rides to class. She prayed every day there would be no bus accidents. She was happy that yesterday, a day marked by an ice storm, her children could walk to school again.

The two-story school, built in 1954, still wouldn't win a beauty pageant. It should look nicer this summer, after the windows and blinds are replaced, Clark said. Some parents said they were spoiled by Battle Grove Elementary, which they described as "immaculate." Lisa Gilbow said her fifth-grade daughter Brittney was thriving there. She suspects the well-kept school was part of it.

"Her grades went up. When you're around a good environment you're happier and you want to learn," Gilbow said. "But compared to what it was, we should be grateful, happy.

"It doesn't look good. Honestly, they should have torn it down and started new."

Don't tell that to Erin Thomas. She had been at Padonia Elementary School in Cockeysville, near her mom's work. Her mom, Tabatha Oyola, thought it was taking too long for school officials to figure out what would happen at Hawthorne and thought her daughter was losing too much school time. So Erin was transferred. But Erin begged to come back to her friends in Mr. Alexander's class. Oyola gave in.

"When I walked in it was, like, 'Whoa,' because it was all different," Erin said, smiling bigger than just about anybody. "I couldn't go to sleep last night" because of the excitement.

"I'm happy you're back," Clark told her and took her back to class, where she was greeted with cheers, handed a copy of Jalapeno Bagels and settled right back in.

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